Cast your discomfort aside, in matters of life and death, debate is the only thing that counts

January 28, 2005

The murder of a Dutch film-maker should make us more, not less, willing to air our views, says Paul Cliteur

On November 5, the Dutch film-maker and writer Theo van Gogh was murdered in the streets of Amsterdam. His murderer, a 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan man, Mohammed B, pinned a letter on his victim's chest with a death threat against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a right-wing member of the Dutch Parliament. Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali collaborated on the film Submission , which presented a passionate indictment of the position of some women under Islam. Dutch society was in a state of shock and still is after hearing eyewitness accounts of the murder.

A British bystander declared he had seen Mohammed B several times before the day of the murder. Apparently, Mohammed planned his attack carefully. Almost all the witnesses testify to the cold-blooded nature of the murder. One of them told the police how, after shooting Van Gogh, Mohammed carefully decapitated his victim with a kind of butcher's knife.

He then reloaded his gun. One petrified bypasser allegedly said: "You cannot do that." Mohammed answered: "Why not? He asked for it." The witness said he repeated his words: "You cannot do that." Mohammed answered: "I can. And now you all know what you can expect."

What lessons can we draw from these events? Many people in the Netherlands, as in the UK and other countries where tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims are rising, want to avoid extremism on both sides. Journalist Will Hutton commented on the case saying: "White and Islamic racism (in the Netherlands) clash head to head; the result is potential calamity.

Majorities on both sides of the divide must resist the pressure to join the closing moral circle."

Others, such as journalist Rohan Jayasekera in Index on Censorship , criticise Van Gogh as a "free speech fundamentalist" who orchestrated his own "martyrdom operation".

Both commentators miss the point. Jayasekera forgets that the penalty for blasphemy in the Netherlands is three months' imprisonment - not the death penalty as carried out by private organisations who base their verdicts on the Holy Scripture. Moreover, developments in the Netherlands since November show that extremists do not retaliate only against those they deem to have brutally insulted Islam, such as Van Gogh. They also target less extreme people such as Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam, and councillor Ahmed Aboutaleb.

On November 10, two alleged terrorists were arrested on suspicion of planning a murder. Their targets were not only the "usual people", Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, members of Parliament living in safe-houses because of their criticism of Islam, but Cohen and Aboutaleb. Hirsi Ali and Wilders belong to right-wing parties. Cohen and Aboutaleb are social democrats. More striking, Cohen is a strong supporter of multiculturalism and takes a lenient line on religious minorities. What has he done to provoke hostilities? Some whisper that he has been targeted because of his Jewish background.

As for Aboutaleb, a letter on an Islamic website accuses the liberal Muslim councillor with Moroccan roots of atheism, heresy, of subscribing to the separation of church and state and of condoning homosexuality.

So the contention that the murder of van Gogh was an "extremist" reaction to the "extremist" criticism of Islam aired in his films, columns and media appearances is hard to maintain. Is there then a better explanation?

The lesson to be drawn from recent developments is that Dutch society has entered a brave new world where religious extremism and terrorism have taken hold. Van Gogh's murderer is not a Moroccan who had not integrated into Dutch society, but someone who speaks the language fluently and is well educated. He is under the influence of an anti-Western Islamist ideology: Takfir Wal Hijra . Takfir means declaring somebody a kafir or apostate. Apostates have to be punished, ultimately by death, because they pose a threat to the puritanical Islam that fundamentalists promote. This suggests that talk about the need for self-censorship and political correctness will not help. What Mohammed B probably wants is not only a ban on criticising the Koran, the Prophet and Islam in general, but also a ban on criticising all ideas that are considered representative of political or radical Islam.

Such a stance affects not only journalists, writers and comedians in terms of their right to freedom of expression (as British comedian Rowan Atkinson pointed out in relation to the cancellation of the Sikh play Behzti in Birmingham at the end of December). It also has an impact on academic writers.

Some European Islamic scholars, sensing the way things were going, decided a while ago that they would not criticise Islam under their own names. One scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany, for example, writes under the pseudonym of Christoph Luxenberg. He argues that many of the difficulties with passages in the Koran can be clarified if the words are seen as derived from Aramaic, the language group of most Middle Eastern Jews and Christians at the time it was written. For example, he says that although Islamic tradition states that martyrs are welcomed into paradise by " houries " or virgins with "swelling breasts", the word " hur " should be translated as "white raisins" or "juicy fruits".

Some commentators believe that secularists and non-believers, such as Luxenberg, should not meddle in these matters. But, as the writer of a recent anonymous article in The Economist wrote: "In a world where suicide bombers are urged on by delectable prizes, that is a translation that matters."

Nevertheless, many people feel uncomfortable about criticising religion. They see religion as something non-believers have no part in and should not discuss. But this is rather naive. In today's world we could not avoid religious ideologies even if we wanted to. It is very important that the fundamentalist brand of Islam does not prevail over its more liberal strand. For, as French scholar Gilles Kepel writes in The War for Muslim Minds , the battle for the democratisation of Islamic societies is likely to be fought in Europe, not the Middle East.

Expressing hope that a more secularised Islam will prevail and criticising political Islam has nothing to do with "Islamophobia", "xenophobia" or "racism". Indeed, criticising radical Islam is in the interests of believing Muslims. It is also not something for outsiders to leave to insiders because the risks are higher for them and orthodox positions are difficult to reform from the inside. Unfortunately, the situation is so tense that writing openly on matters concerning religion seems to be becoming more difficult, even in Europe. For example, the writer and editor of (for some people) controversial books such as The Origins of the Koran , The Quest for the Historical Muhammad and Why I am Not a Muslim , writes under the pen name Ibn Warraq. He claims that biblical scholarship has made people less dogmatic and more open and says he hopes this will happen in Muslim society. And Bat Ye'or, co-author of a standard work on "Dhimmitude" - The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (1985) - the second-class status of Jews and Christian living in Islamic countries, also writes under a false name, as do a growing number of scholars from the Middle East living in Europe.

I also hear from colleagues who teach Arabic literature and Islamic studies that it is increasingly difficult for them to teach unwelcome historical facts about the Koran and other sensitive topics. This is not a completely new phenomenon in Europe. Up until the 17th and 18th centuries; similar difficulties existed for those teaching about Christianity in Europe. And most ancient cultures punished blasphemy with death. For the time being, the best strategy we can take to defend academic freedom in Europe would be to punish those who do not honour the laws and constitutions of Western democracies. But legal measures are not enough. We need also to reject the politically correct attitude that criticising religion is a kind of racism.

In our century, criticism of religion is even more important than in the time of Paine and Voltaire.

Paul Cliteur is professor of jurisprudence at the University of Leiden, Netherlands.

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